There is talk of a new international airport for London but is there room for it in a sustainable future? Charlotte Reid looks at the concerns surrounding the development of a new airport for the south east.
Plans for an airport in the Thames Estuary have been a recurring idea since 1943 and they have been picked up again of late.
Although there are no concrete plans in place yet, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, is expected to announce a consultation for the project in March. The idea is seen as an alternative to a third runway at Heathrow and expansion at Gatwick and Stansted.
London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is such a prominent supporter of the plans that the airport has been dubbed ‘Boris Island’. He told Sky News that it is needed because the UK is “being badly left behind”.
He added, “We can’t go on expecting Britain to compete with France, Germany and other European countries when we simply can’t supply the flights to these growth destinations – China, Latin America”.
But Johnson may have already lost his airport as a Whitehall official said in the Guardian that because of the way the news came out, via the Daily Telegraph, it “has given people a chance to kill it”. He faces opposition from the Liberal Democrats because they are against all airport expansion in the South East of England.
In fact Johnson faces a lot of opposition.
There are concerns about the environmental effects of the airport because it would be partly built on reclaimed land in the Thames Estuary. The area that is being considered for the airport would have a significant impact on the surrounding wildlife, especially birds. This infographic from the Guardian shows all the wildlife areas under threat from the airport.
Nik Shelton, media officer for the RSPB, said the airport would have a significant impact for the birds because “this airport would not be near to the bird’s habitat, it would be on top of it”.
Shelton added, “Concreting over our natural environment […] and pumping more carbon into our atmosphere is no way to create a long term sustainable green economy”.
If this development does go ahead, Sheldon says it could set a bad example for others wanting to build near wildlife areas.
“Any development which takes place on protected land creates precedent for the future and undermines environmental protection everywhere”, she said.
“If our society has valued a piece of habitat so highly that it has been given official protection then we must take that protection seriously, regardless of the changing winds of politics.”
The airport would also bring more people to the South East of England, which is already under stress. The Environment Agency has warned that future water demand will outstrip supply. It also says that the South and the East of England will suffer from droughts more often because of an increase in population.
The idea of Boris Island also goes against the Government’s plans for the high speed rail line, which recently got approval to go ahead.
High Speed 2 (HS2) will introduce speedier rail lines to the UK and should distribute the economy across the UK, rather than keeping the focus in London, in a more environmentally friendly way than other types of transport.
The Government estimates that once the HS2 line is in place, nine million road journeys and 4.5 million plane journeys will made on trains instead. So why encourage more people to fly by building a new airport?
Friends of the Earth executive director Andy Atkins goes as far as to say there is no demand because “the capital already has more flights to the world’s main business destinations than our European neighbours”.
There are no solid plans for the airport yet, which makes it hard to tell what impact the airport would have on climate change. However, a report in 2009 by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) on aviation emissions says ministers need to limit demand.
The CCC was asked to do the report by the previous Government to give advice on how aviation emissions could be reduced to 2005 levels by 2050. A spokesperson said, “We showed that aviation emissions could be reduced through various levers (e.g. efficiency improvement, use of biofuels), together with constraining demand growth to 60% over the next four decades”.
Although Damian Carrington’s blog on the Guardian says it is hard to reduce emissions in aviation, other than by deciding to stop flying, there are companies offering sustainable alternatives which have less of an impact on the environment.
Cameron’s Government has probably regretted saying that they will be the “greenest ever Government” as it leads to easy criticism. Atkins rightly says, “David Cameron’s pledge to lead the greenest Government ever will ring hollow if he gives the green light to a huge expansion in air travel”.
While there are a number of negatives surrounding air travel, there are a growing number of sustainable travel options out there which consider the impacts on the local area and the environment.
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